From 1998 through 2004, the premium cable network HBO showed the drama Sex and the City. The program was met with unquestioning hosannas from the entertainment industry and critical establishment, particularly for the way it’s four female protagonists treated sex: spewing four-letter words and going to bed with any man who came along, then getting together to exchange graphic dialogue and rate their bedmates. If men acted like this, of course, they’d be decried as crude, caveman-like sexist pigs; but when women did it, apparently it was the very essence of a liberated mind-set and the epitome of female self-respect.
Now, a decade later, the CW broadcast network is engaged in a desperate attempt to wring more mileage out of the exhausted franchise with its new drama The Carrie Diaries (Mondays, 8:00 p.m. ET), which traces the 1980s teenage years of SatC’s lead character Carrie Bradshaw. The program’s January 28th episode also brought its cable progenitor’s Sex-slathered sensibility to prime time; but rather than being on a channel and a program clearly intended for adults, such content was shown on the public airwaves…and rated appropriate for 14-year-old children, a clear example of a show that was Misrated.
The program’s queasy combination of sweet teenage romance with blatant and crude sex content is telegraphed by the show’s logo, with the “i” in “Carrie” dotted with a little heart. The episode opens with Carrie at high school, monologuing about how everyone has “labels,” worrying about “figuring out who I am,” and chatting with her teen girlfriends Maggie and Mouse about her attraction to the hunky “bad boy” Sebastian, whom her father has forbidden her to see.
Thus far, typical teen drama. Well, except for the part where Carrie illegally breaks into her father’s law files and discovers that Sebastian had sex with his art history teacher at a previous school – a fact which Carrie and her friends take in stride, Maggie even enthusing, “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be with a person who knows how to do stuff.”
Naturally, none of the girls bats an eye at the thought of one of their boyfriends sleeping with his teacher, though Carrie is still a bit concerned about defying her father. But then Carrie meets up with Larissa, her internship supervisor at the glamorous Interview magazine. Asking the older woman what she should do, Carrie receives the following advice:
Larissa: “I once had a luuuurid affair with my father’s best friend. Which became insanely hazardous when I started seeing his son on the side…To me, the most exciting men are the ones that we can’t have. Are you seriously asking me if it’s alright to get involved with a bad boy? MEN ARE NO GOOD – UNLESS THEY’RE BAD!”
Meanwhile, as if to confirm Larissa’s statement on the worthlessness of men, the viewer sees Carrie’s bumbling, clueless father Tom hopelessly overwhelmed by the prospect of buying tampons for his daughter. Throughout the episode, Tom is repeatedly hit on (and runs away from) women who are attracted to him because his wife has died. The show’s opinion of men is further confirmed by Tom’s sleazy pal, who not only takes the still-stricken Tom to a singles bar, but tells the grieving widower, “You’ve got no one. Man, you are set! You’ve got the greatest pick-up line of all time!”
Then follows more cutesy teen romance: Carrie’s friend Mouse plans an ice cream date with her boyfriend; Carrie’s other friend Maggie laments her recent breakup by talking to her stuffed panda, saying, “Bear-bear, remember how we won you at the carnival? You were there the first time we kissed. I was so happy that day”; and Carrie’s kid sister Dorrit has a wacky adventure trying to hide a hamster in her room.
Yet all this cozy, Hannah Montana-style sweetness is hurled headlong into a cesspool when Larissa takes Carrie to a “performance art” gallery show, in which “legendary porn star” Monica Penny “reclaims her female power” by…well, let’s let Larissa tell it:
Larissa: “She’s done with porn. She’s completely renounced her former existence and reinvented herself as a performance artist. This piece is called ‘Monica Penny: Take Back the Vagina.’ You drop a penny in that jar, and she opens her vagina to you…She’s not selling her vagina, she’s owning it! You see how that’s a huge difference? Every show is different. I heard at last night’s performance, the vagina had sex!”
(This bit of satire would be funnier if it weren’t an accurate representation of the entertainment industry’s idea of “female empowerment,” as seen in such products as Girls Gone Wild, The Playboy Club…and, well, Sex and the City.)
Carrie warily creeps forward, indulging in another internal (and interminable) monologue as she prepares to drop her penny in the jar: “They say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow. That’s nothing compared to the number we have for vagina. Rosebud. Box. Hoo-hah. Pink panther …yet I was still petrified by what I would feel when Monica Penny uncrossed her legs.”
Yet Carrie does look her fear in the…um, face. Upon which, the porn star pulls her onto the stage and bellows, “Carrie Bradshaw, when I look at you, I see myself years ago, when my power was pure and young…But I was foolish. I sold my power. I relinquished my vagina. Learn from my mistakes, Carrie Bradshaw. Never let a man – ANY man – make your decisions! Own your power!…SHOW THE WORLD YOUR VAGINA!”
When Carrie refuses (causing two nearby transsexuals to sneer, “When did people get so precious about their genitalia?” and “I’d show my vagina, but I’ve still got a penis”), Larissa berates her intern: “Are you mad? That was your big chance! Clearly, I’ve misjudged you. I thought one day you’d make a name for yourself. I could imagine your picture on a billboard, or the side of a bus [a call-back to the opening of Sex and the City]. But you’re not willing to own your power.” Thus, Carrie is made to feel guilty about a decent impulse to maintain normal modesty.
Yet, the episode tells us that Carrie has learned a positive lesson from paying a porn queen to publicly expose herself: “Monica Penny had seen something in me. Something strong…She made me realize that if I didn’t define who I was and what I wanted, somebody else would. And what I wanted was Sebastian. And no man, not even my father, could stop me!”
Suiting her action to her word, Carrie confronts her father, admitting she broke the law by reading his files, then concludes with, “I’ll make my own decisions, and I’ve decided to see Sebastian.”
A disappointed Tom very properly points out, “He’s the cause of all your reckless and irresponsible behavior. Reading my files? That is illegal! You jeopardize my career because you don’t like what I have to say about some boy? This is not you, Carrie. This is you under his influence…You are 16 years old. I know you’re not perfect. I expect you to make mistakes. But this? You are not the Carrie Bradshaw I know.”
But Carrie doesn’t need to care about her father’s opinion; a porno actress has affirmed her, and told her not to let ANY man “make her decisions.” What does she need her father for? He’s just some man standing in the way of teenage Carrie doing whatever she wants. At the episode’s conclusion, Carrie does end up avoiding Sebastian – but only because he dumps her, not because of anything her father said.
For that is the lesson The Carrie Diaries presents to its rating-approved 14-year-old viewers: ignore the concerns and advice of the parents who love and provide for you; listen instead to the opinions of porno actresses, other juveniles, and status-crazed co-workers; and do whatever you please.
And along the way, the TV-14 rated Carrie Diaries subjects its teenage audience to blatant sexual content and crude language which may have been appropriate for a premium cable drama, but which does not belong on the public airwaves at 8/7 Central, and certainly not in a program rated appropriate for young teens. (As a final rude gesture to audiences, the CW’s mis-rating did not even contain an “S” descriptor signifying sexual content…though most people would agree that a porn queen spreading her legs for pay would qualify.)
All this said, the show is at least true to its premise. The Carrie Diaries does accurately portray the slow, subtle process of corruption necessary to turn a sweet teenage girl into the jaded, voracious tramp of Sex and the City…a fate one can only hope most of the show’s underage viewers avoid.
The CW would likely say, “It’s just a TV show. It can’t influence girls to act out.” But in at least one case, it’s parent program did. As reported by ABC News, under the influence of Sex and the City, 14-year-old “Lisa” lost her virginity, snuck into bars, and cheated on her boyfriend with up to seven other guys in one week: “When you’re that age you try to emulate people on TV. Carrie smoked, so I smoked. Samantha looked at hooking up with random people as not a big deal, so that’s what I did, too…[Sex and the City] made it a little easier to justify my behavior.” “Lisa” also said, “Now that I’m older, looking back, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, these women are in their 30s. What was I thinking?’ I’m not sure I’d want my little sister seeing it. She’s 14.”
Thanks to the CW’s mis-rating and decision to air The Carrie Diaries in the Family Hour, now millions of 14-year-olds can.
If you agree that this program was inadequately rated, please write to the TV ratings advisory board at firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know that the TV ratings once again failed to adequately warn parents about inappropriate content.
For more information about the TV ratings, please visithttp://www.tvguidelines.org/.